When we learn English verbs, we need to learn verb conjugation for different tenses. For example, the verb “do” can be used as “do - did - done”. However, in Chinese, verbs do not need to be changed, no matter what tense the sentence is.
Sounds great, right? You don’t have to spend time learning dreaded verb-changing rules! But how does the Chinese language express tense?
You only need to know some time adverbs and aspect particles to help you express past, present or future, completed or ongoing. It might be easier than you think, so, just start to learn with me.
Present Tense in Chinese
The first thing you should know is time adverbs. Some of the words you may have already learned in Tell Time in Chinese Lesson 2.
Commonly Used Time Adverbs for Simple Present Tense
jīng cháng/cháng cháng
měi (gè) zhōu/ měi (gè ) xīng qī
měi (gè) yuè
There is one word you should pay attention to, which is “每(měi)”. It means “every” in Chinese. This word is often used in the present tense.
wǒ měi tiān bā diǎn qǐ chuáng
I get up at 8:00 every day.
wǒ de lǎo shī jīng cháng dài wǒ men qù gōng yuán
My teacher often take us to the park.
Aspect Particle for Something in Progress
在 (zài) ,正在 (zhèng zài) and 着(zhe) all indicate present continuous tense, which means something is currently still happening. Sometimes “正在” and “着” can be used at the same time.
wǒ (zhèng) zài chī fàn
I am eating.
wǒ men (zhèng) zài kāi huì
We are having a meeting.
tā chuān zhe yī jiàn hóng sè de yī fú
She is in red.
bà ba zhèng (zài) dǎ zhe diàn huà ne
Father is talking on the phone.
Chinese Time Adverbs for Something in Progress
If you want to express that the action is currently in progress or ongoing, use the following adverbs:
at the moment
at present, currently
wǒ xiàn zài zài xué zhōng wén
I am learning Chinese now.
cǐ kè nǐ yǒu shén me xiǎng shuō de?
What do you want to say at the moment?
Past Tense in Chinese
Commonly Used Time Adverbs for Past Tense
Unlike English, Chinese people like to place time adverbs at the beginning of a sentence, instead of the end, for most of the time.
in the past
few moments ago
… nián qián
…… years ago
…(gè) yuè qián
…… months ago
shàng (gè) yuè
…(gè) zhōu qián
…… weeks ago
shàng (gè) zhōu/ xīng qī
…… days ago
the day before yesterday
wǒ sān nián qián kāi shǐ xué zhōng wén
I started to learn Chinese 3 years ago.
wǒ yǐ qián shì míng yī shēng
I was a doctor before.
zuó wǎn wǒ hé nán péng yǒu qù kàn le diànyǐng
I went to see a movie with my boyfriend last night.
shàng gè zhōu wǒ qù chū chāi le
I went on a business trip last week
Aspect Particle for Past Tense
We can add some aspect particle, such as 了 (le) and 过(guò), place it immediately after the verb, to indicate an action is completed or past.
了(le) is used to indicate the completion of an action. In a similar way, 过 (guò) is used to show that something has happened before. And we also can use “…过了 (guò le)” together, to indicate that the status of an action has been completed.
To say that an action has never happened before, negate the verb using 没 (méi) or 没有 (méi yǒu). You can also use the adverb 从来 (cóng lái) which means ‘in the past’ to express something that has never happened.
Besides, the aspect articles can be used both with or without the adverb of time.
wǒ qù guò cháng chéng
I have been to the Great Wall.
wǒ men yǐ qián jiàn guò le
We have met before.
wǒmen fēn shǒu le
We broke up.
Tāng mǔ kàn le nà běn shū
Tom has read that book.
jīn nián shǔ jià wǒ méi yǒu huí jiā
I didn’t went back home this summer holiday.
zhè shì cóng lái méi yǒu guò de dà xīn wén
This is a big news that has never happened before.
Future Tense in Chinese
Commonly Used Time Adverbs for Future Tense
Some time adverbs in this chart can be paired with the adverbs in past tense part, for easy memorizing, you can match them together.
in the future
dài huì (er)
after a while
děng huì (er)
after few moments
… years later
…(gè) yuè hòu
xià gè yuè
… (gè) zhōu / xīng qī hòu
… weeks later
xià gè zhōu / xīng qī
the day after tomorrow
xià cì qǐng zǎo diǎn lái
Please come earlier next time.
jiāng lái wǒ xiǎng gěi bà mā mǎi gè dà fáng zi
I want to buy a big house for my parents in the future.
wǒ yǐ hòu xiǎng zuò yī míng lǎo shī
I want to be a teacher in the future.
wǒ mā mā xià gè yuè yào lái kàn wǒ
My mom will come to see me next month.
Aspect Particle for Future Tense
要 (yào), 会(huì) and 将 (jiāng) all indicate an action has not yet happened.
The three auxiliary verbs can be used for talking about the future in the sense of “going to do something” or “intending to do something”. For most of the cases, the differences between these three words are not so distinct, they can substitute each other.
will / be going to
will / be going to
confident prediction something has a high possibility to happen
will / be going to
about to happen
And both 不 (bù) and 没 (有) (méi yǒu) are always put before the verb or adjective to express negation.
wǒ yào zǒu la
I am going to leave!
wǒ míng tiān shì bù huì qù de
I won’t go tomorrow.
yán tǎo huì jiāng yú xià zhōu wǔ jǔ xíng
The seminar will hold on next Friday.
nǐ yǐ hòu bù yào zài chí dào le
Please don’t be late again in the future.
wèi lái, rén lèi huì miè jué ma
Will human beings die out in the future?
A Few Extras
“了”often appear in sentences about the past, but it can also appear with present or future actions. It’s not always a tense marker. This is quite hard to grasp, but try not to overthink it in the early stages.
Another one you should take note is that “会” “要” “将” these three auxiliary verbs do not always indicate future tense. As always, it depends on the context. One good example is “会” which may also be used as a modal verb “can”.
The best way to learn a language is to keep practicing. You can try to practice these sentences above. Listen to and read as much Chinese as you can (that is nearly always the best thing you can do for your Chinese) and try to speak them out!
The more you speak, the more opportunity you’ll get to practice them and the more perfect your Chinese will be! If you know any native Chinese-speakers, try and practice what you’ve learned with them.
Good luck and have fun!